Media: Never mind sales, where have the readers gone?

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The Independent Culture
"THERE ARE lies, damned lies and a newspaper's analysis of its competitors' sales figures," The Guardian's marketing director said in a letter to The Independent last month. Now it seems readership figures can also make interesting reading. Newspaper readership figures rarely change quickly; so they are written about much less than sales or circulation figures. But this month is different.

Figures from the National Readership Survey last week showed that every newspaper, with the exception of the Daily Mail, lost readers over the last six months compared with the same six months in 1997.

Leading the pack was The Guardian, which lost a whopping 22 per cent of its readership, or 300,000 readers, taking its total number of readers to just over 1m.

Most papers, both broadsheet and tabloid, have lost sales of between 5 and 16 per cent compared with May to October last year.

Readership figures judge the total number of readers per copy of a title and often get forgotten by commentators because they tend to lag behind sales figures. When sales of a newspaper increase it is often the people who used to share someone else's copy who are the new buyers. When they buy their own copy, the average number of readers per copy will drop as sales increase, and it can take months of sales growth for the total number of readers to grow.

In the same way, when a newspaper's sales are falling it can take time for the sales fall to be reflected in the number of people actually reading a paper; they may have given up buying a title but continue to borrow someone else's.

The Independent and the Financial Times, the only two titles to increase sales in last month's ABC figures, have also had falls in their readership, illustrating the time-lag factor. The Financial Times would argue that readership figures are less relevant to it because half its sales are overseas and that is the half that is growing. The NRS cannot detect overseas readers.

While sales figures are important to newspapers because they determine the amount of cover price revenue a newspaper brings in, the readership figures are important because they can determine the amount of advertising revenue it attracts. Media-buying agencies are divided about the importance of readership figures. Manyof those buying space in a newspaper use the overall readership of a title to give an indication of what coverage - the number of people who will actually see an ad - the paper will give to their campaign. If readership is down this can force down the price a newspaper can charge for its pages of advertising.

And because they are hard negotiators, media buyers will use whatever data is most beneficial to them as a negotiating tool. If sales are falling they will try to use that as their trading currency. If readership is falling faster, it makes more sense to try to bash a newspaper's sales team with that data.

Other buyers are not so reliant on readership data because of the time- lag factor. The latest figures may also have been affected by a change in the way the NRS gathers its research, with individual sections now included in the questionnaire - although this should affect all newspapers equally.

"The NRS is most often used to supply you with the kind of audience supplied by a newspaper," says David Fletcher, a director of the media buyer CIA Medianetwork.

"The ABC figures give a more immediate measure of the recent strength of a title and the NRS can be used to give an idea of the cost efficiency of using it."